I’ve been so busy in my garden that I haven’t had time to write so far this spring. But I promised a friend this recipe, and while it doesn’t contain garden vegetables as written (I haven’t tried growing lentils yet), any number of garden vegetables can be added, depending on your taste. Personally, I like adding some spinach best, but diced carrots or baby peas work well too.

At any rate, this recipe originally came to me nearly forty years ago as a curried chicken recipe. But then I became a near-vegan (with small, occasional dairy lapses). Hence, curried lentils.

Here goes:

3 T olive oil
1 T curry powder (amount can vary, keeping in mind the strength of your curry and your personal preference)
3 T flour
2-1/2 c vegetable broth
1/2 c golden raisins
2 c cooked lentils
2 c white or brown rice
1/2 c toasted slivered almonds

Make a roux by warming oil in a saucepan, stirring in curry powder and flour. Stir in the vegetable broth and cook until the broth begins to thicken. Add the golden raisins and cooked lentils, stirring, until warm. Serve over rice, and sprinkle almonds over top. Serves 4 to 6.

As I said, this recipe is easily adapted to your own personal tastes. Want chicken curry? Then use cooked diced chicken in place of the lentils and chicken broth in place of the vegetable broth.

All summer long, I kept asking myself, “What’s with this place?” The soil here just wants to grow things. Everything I plant takes off in amazing ways.

Those eight zucchini plants — planted more than a month late? Every time I turned my back, there were piles of zucchini waiting for me the next time I wandered through my garden. I’ve frozen 24 cups of grated zucchini and fed relatives in two states. And, even now, there are another half dozen growing away in late September. Eight zucchini plants are more than enough.

Those strawberries that I transplanted? They’ve all taken root, and I expect great things from them come June. In the meantime, growing in their midst is a plot of spinach, Swiss chard, bok choy and arugula — thrown in as an after thought, an effort to start cleaning out my stash of old seed. Planted about a month ago, all are ready to eat right now. I’m eating as fast as I can, and the relatives are doing their part, but let’s just say our little pet rabbit is dining like royalty as well.

But the real proof that this soil is rich, rich, rich? It’s the sunflowers growing outside my bedroom window. Huge! Leaves like sheets of newspaper and heads the size of serving platters. One stormy night a few weeks ago, the wind was slamming these things against the side of the house and it sounded like bodies hitting the walls in the dark of the night. Very, very creepy.

I'm not exaggerating.  Here's one that fell to the ground yesterday, drying out for the before-mentioned rabbit's winter fare.  (That's a standard-sized dinner plate on the table next to it.)

I’m not exaggerating. Here’s one that fell to the ground yesterday, drying out for the before-mentioned rabbit’s winter fare. (That’s a standard-sized dinner plate on the table next to it.)

With a little investigation, I may have learned this land’s productivity secret. My dad tells me that some time ago one of the tenants kept horses for several years on this side of the house, right where I’ve planted my garden. Years of manure curing in the prairie grass. I can’t wait to see what this ground yields next year.

I forgot to check on the garden yesterday, and now look what I have on my hands.

And there are four more that will be ready to pick tomorrow.

And there are four more that will be ready to pick tomorrow.

Earlier this summer I mentioned the multitudes of strawberries that I found growing in the weeds and thick prairie grass behind our ancient shed. Who knows how many years – or even decades – these have been hiding there. But, despite their less-than-desirable growing conditions, we got a couple of quarts of very nice berries in June, and I am sure someone must have once planted them, because they most definitely are not wild.

And finally I have a nice strip of soil in my garden plot ready for planting, as it is now barren of all weeds (suffocated out by my previously-described, desperate roof-paper strategy). This is where I am relocating the strawberries, and yesterday I got to work.

First, I drove to the nearest Walmart and bought a half dozen 40-pound bags of topsoil for $1.38 each ($8.73 total with tax). The only reason for this particular choice was that it is the cheapest I have seen anywhere in the community. No, it’s not organic, but I’ll live with that.

The bag says this topsoil is packaged by Hyponex and is a Scotts Company product.

The bag says this product is packaged by Hyponex and is a Scotts Company product.

My plan was to cover the plot with a single layer of newspaper, to inhibit whatever weeds remain, and then cover that with about 2 inches of the bagged topsoil, which should be free of weeds. Notice how much WEEDS occupy my every thought and to what extent I will go to avoid them. I’ve learned from heart-rending experience that I can’t just turn over the earth out here on this land. This soil simply wants to grow things, and the minute I liberate any seed from the below the surface, weeds immediately spring to life.

The roofing paper cover did a pretty good job of suffocating out the weeds in about a 3-week period of time.

The roofing paper cover did a pretty good job of suffocating out the weeds in about a 3-week period of time.

Each bag is supposed to cover 4.5 square feet when spread out 2 inches thick. I flattened the soil out as best as I could with a hoe, then started covering it with the newspaper, as planned. I calculated that the strip was about 3 feet wide, so I could cover roughly a 9-foot length.

It was mildly windy, so I scooped dirt onto the newspaper to hold it all in place.

It was mildly windy, so I scooped dirt onto the newspaper to hold it all in place.

When the newspaper covered the particular patch that I was about to plant, I went to work on the topsoil inside my wheelbarrow, which was heavily packed, using a handtool. I worried that working on top of the newspaper would easily disrupt the paper underneath.

Okay.  The wheelbarrow needs a paint job.  (It was a garage sale find.)

Okay. The wheelbarrow needs a paint job. (It was a garage sale find.)

That wheelbarrow strategy paid off. I found that it was easiest to work with one bag at a time so that I could smooth out most of the lumps. I gently raked the softened topsoil out over the paper, also one bag at a time, until the area was covered.

Bagged topsoil is not known to be rich planting material, but it does make a nice black cover for the fertile soil beneath.  I found this brand to be on the sandy side with some small twigs and stones throughout.

Bagged topsoil is not known to be rich planting material, but it does make a nice black cover for the fertile soil beneath. I found this brand to be on the sandy side with some small twigs and stones throughout.

Once the strip of newspaper was covered by the six bags of topsoil – and yes, a 3 by 9 foot strip seems to be about the right area for 2-inch coverage – I went to work digging up the strawberries from behind the shed. Doing this was buggy, sweaty labor, and I was ever on the alert for snakes in the grass, which I do spot here from time to time. As I moved the plants into their new location, I dug deep, right through the newspaper, worked a small bit of soil underneath and placed their roots there. Then I covered the roots with the purchased topsoil.

Don't you just feel for these poor strawberry plants?  They must be strong, to have muscled their way all these years through such inhospitable conditions.

Don’t you just feel for these poor strawberry plants? They must be strong, to have muscled their way all these years through such inhospitable conditions.

In total, I’ve moved thirty plants into the new location, and I have at least three times that remaining yet behind the shed. The whole job, beginning with the newspaper and topsoil and ending with the planting of the strawberries, took a little more than two hours. In a few days, I will cover the topsoil with pine needle mulch, which my cousin is generously allowing me to gather from her yard. I expect I’ll go for another thirty plants later this week, and keep adding on until I’ve rescued as many as I can find in the thick overgrowth.

Later, I will mow a walking path back over where I found the berries into the farthermost part of this property, past a stand of trees and through about an acre of prairie. I expect I’ll continue to rescue strawberries for a few more years as more find their way into my line of vision.

So far, I have a modest patch of strawberries, and they don't look particularly happy after the move.  But with daily watering, they should perk up soon.

So far, I have a modest patch of strawberries, and they don’t look particularly happy after the move. But with daily watering, they should perk up soon.

The first zucchini is ready, and it grew so much in the past 24 hours that I regret not picking it yesterday. The grandchildren have been notified, and zucchini drop cookies should be in the mail to them within the day. (For my recipe, click the “recipe” tag on the left side of this page.)

First zucchini of the 2014 season, six weeks after planting.

First zucchini of the 2014 season, six weeks after planting.

And more zucchini are on their way. At present, with a staggered planting of ten zucchini seeds in June (eight grew), I have at least a dozen smaller zucchinis on the vine, two which I will pick by day’s end.

As a gardener becomes acquainted with a new piece of land, much of the first season is consumed with discovery. And an important part of that effort is learning where the sun casts the intensity of its light — where the shadows fall, during what parts of the day and for how long. These will determine the placement of crops and other plantings.

For all of my complaints about the state of my farmhouse and the weeds in my garden, I can’t help but balance that with rhapsodic praise for the enormous sky and the openness of the landscape. There is a special kind of pleasure that comes from the sensation that the heavens are so close at hand, almost within reach.

Sunrise on the farm.  That's our apple tree on the right, the branches already heavy with fruit.

Sunrise on the farm. That’s our apple tree on the right, the branches already heavy with fruit.

I’ve situated my garden fairly close to the west side of the house, and that placement keeps much (but not all) of the tilled soil in the shade until about 9 in the morning. But then the sun shines bright for the remainder of the day. There are ancient maple trees on the north, and for a fair part of the day, their shadows fall from outstretched branches over one end of my garden. This is where my salad greens will grow, and I’m planning on sowing a fall crop before the month’s end. My experience with my last garden taught me that greens do really well in high shade. And they don’t need a lot of soil depth either, so I won’t have to fight the trees’ root system either.

I’m also planning on adding more maples farther southwest from the garden, with about 20 feet of prairie grass to separate them from the garden’s outside corner. The muscular winds of this past winter made it clear that this property needs a sturdy windbreak to protect the house and lawn from gusts blowing across the acres and acres of farmland lying beyond. Hopefully, the trees will start to add that buffer after a decade or so of growth.

Sunset at the farm, from my garden.

Sunset at the farm, from my garden.

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that whatever I do in my garden this year is primarily in preparation for next year.

In my post earlier this month, I discussed the thick tangle of weeds that I attempted to till through this spring when I started my new garden.  A couple of my Facebook friends recommended white vinegar as an organic weed-killer, but I ultimately rejected that idea because I didn’t want to harm the earthworms and the various insects and micro-organisms that build up the soil.  Just because something is organic or natural does not mean that it will be gentle with the earth underneath the weeds.  For me, that is the most important goal here – to create a thriving garden that works with, not against, nature.

Instead, I decided to go with my original plan and smother the weeds, primarily using material right here in front of me:  roofing paper left outside years ago behind the house.  The rolls have been standing on one end next to the back door so that they are crimped by their own weight on the end that rested on concrete.  They no longer unroll evenly, and undoubtedly are worthless as roofing paper.  

So I unrolled the paper over the area I intend to garden next year.  Then I anchored it all in place with large rocks and bricks and broken pieces of concrete, because out here on the Illinois prairie the wind can be intense on occasion, to put it mildly.  Yes, I was somewhat concern about what chemicals might leach from the paper into the soil, but then I realized that this very same product covers the entire roof of the house anyway.  I figured a couple of weeks directly on the land would not likely be much worse than decades of the equally polluted rain water that falls about fifteen feet away my garden plot.  So I’m reporting now that I’m quite please with the results.  

Here's a good look at the weeds I am trying to kill along the edge of the roofing paper that I am using to smother it out.

Here’s a good look at the weeds I am trying to kill along the edge of the roofing paper that I am using to smother them out.

As it turns out, roofing paper repels water and does not absorb it.  It would not be a good choice in a garden for any length of time.  But because it is black, it quickly bakes any vegetation underneath it.  Within just two weeks of summer sunshine, all vegetation beneath the roofing paper is dead.  

Now,  I’ve moved over the paper to expand my garden further, and I’ve heavily mulched the vegetation-free ground with layers of newspaper, brown paper bags or grass clippings covered by pine bark mulch, conveniently on steep clearance at the Walmart nearest us. Over the fall, winter and early spring, earthworms will feed on the mulch and soften the earth for planting next year.

 

 

Here's my garden now, partly mulched in preparation for next year, with another strip covered in roofing paper.

Here’s my garden now, partly mulched in preparation for next year, with another strip covered in roofing paper.

I’m happy to report that I have some zucchini growing in the one corner, seven plants in total.  That should be adequate for eating now and freezing for later.  It’s nothing close to what I had planned for my garden this year, but sometimes you simply need to be patient.  I’m not entirely talented at that, I’m afraid.

My zucchini is off to a good start.  My grandchildren gave me the seeds for Mother's Day this year, a gentle hint that they are expecting zucchini cookies before too long.

My zucchini is off to a good start. My grandchildren gave me the seeds for Mother’s Day this year, a gentle hint that they are expecting zucchini cookies before too long.

 

With the graduation of my youngest two children from high school last year, I made a rather adventurous decision to move from Indiana to my grandfather’s farmhouse in Illinois. And now that we are here, and I’m wondering if I might have been a little nuts.

The house is a civil-war era structure, with the additions of kitchen, bath and laundry/front porch made at various times along the way. It’s not cute, nor is it remotely picturesque. What we are using as a garage (aka, “the shed”) has an attached hen house and a feeding trough once used for horses. I’m surprised that the corn crib, unused for decades, survived the harsh, harsh winter winds of the past year.

100_1913

My father has owned and rented out this house — and the farmland — for the past thirty years. It’s structurally sound, but frankly pretty beat up, inside and out. I had the romantic notion that I could live here, garden, and finish writing a novel I’ve been working on for a couple of years. Ha! I think the joke is on me. The yard is a tangle of weeds, every corner of the house needs work, and I miss my grandkids. I spend most of my time bouncing from project to project, painting one room, stripping the finish on the wood floor in another, mowing back the lawn, digging up the weeds in the flower beds, tilling the garden, mowing again, and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.

I found strawberries planted and hiding underneath the overgrowth behind the shed. I want to move them up closer to the house where they can spread out and thrive. There is a beautiful apple tree, planted — my dad says — by my grandfather years before he died. There are grapevines too, and I am waiting to see what they produce this summer. I have no clue how to tend them.

A month ago the winter backed away enough for us to till the garden, and the thick growth of some unidentified species of tough plantain weed made us give up after a thin strip was plowed on the west side of the house. My plans for an organic garden need some fresh assistance. Help me, readers. What will kill this stuff? Currently, I’m simply trying to suffocate it underneath anything I can find. A previous renter left behind several rolls of roofing paper, which I have spread out next to the strip that we tilled and held down by rocks and cement blocks. I may not have my great garden this year, but maybe there’s hope for next year.

In the meantime, I’m concentrating on zucchini, which allows me to stagger my planting some. And the late planting helps me avoid those nasty zucchini bugs, so it’s actually a good thing. Plus, those grandkids I mentioned will be mightily disappointed if I am not sending my famous zucchini cookies back to them in Indiana by summer’s end.

An abandoned pen out by the cedar tree once kept goats.

An abandoned pen out by the cedar tree once kept goats.

100_1511Our family has a new favorite salad this summer. We serve it over lettuce greens from our garden, and it uses scallions from the garden as well. We based it on a version sold in the Whole Foods Deli, modifying in more to our family preferences.

2 c uncooked pearl couscous (also called Israeli couscous)
Salt
4 T olive oil
Clove garlic, minced
2 T white wine vinegar
Zest from one orange
Juice from 1/2 orange
2 T honey or agave syrup
1 t turmeric
1 t thyme
1 t tarragon
1/2 ground black pepper
1 c dried cranberries
1 c raw pecan pieces
6 scallions, chopped

Cook the couscous according to package directions, salting to taste. Saute the garlic in 1 T olive oil and toss into the couscous.

While the couscous cools, in a large bowl whisk together the remaining oil, white wine vinegar, orange zest and juice, honey or agave syrup, turmeric, thyme, tarragon and black pepper. When the couscous has cooled, add it and the cranberries, pecan pieces and chopped scallions. Toss together, and refrigerate until serving.

You can serve immediately, but I think it tastes best when the flavors have blended together overnight.

My grandsons, age 2 and 5, are big fans of these tasty not-so-sweet cookies, made with zucchini from my garden. Last summer, I froze grated zucchini in dozens of 2-cup batches so that we could enjoy these through the winter.

Cream together:
1 c butter, softened
2 c sugar

Beat in:
2 eggs
2 c grated zucchini
Grated orange peel from one organic orange

Combine the following dry ingredients:
3 c all-purpose flour
1 c whole wheat flour (I use white)
1 T baking powder
1 T cardamom
1 T anise seed
1 t salt

Gradually add the dry ingredient mixture to the creamed mixture and mix thoroughly. Drop by even tablespoonfuls onto baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Bake at 350° for 10 to twelve minutes, until lightly browned. Cool on wire racks.

101_1088
Two-year-old Zaven loves Ema’s zucchini drop cookies.

On Twitter

Archive

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.